Yanina Cywinska “The Sugar Plum Nut”

Published On April 18, 2011 | By Mike Carroll | KCRA-TV, One-Man Newsman, Shooting News, TV News Vault

Yanina Cywinska “The Sugar Plum Nut” from Mike Carroll on Vimeo.

A few weeks ago I was sent out with a news intern to shoot an interview with an 82 year old woman in Concord, California, and was told that she had been in the war — World War Two.

Yanina Cywinska today, in Concord, California, with Mike Carroll after the interview.

She greeted us with sparkling eyes and a quick sense of humor. I clipped a microphone to her and started the camera rolling and then was astounded by the story that poured out of her.

She had been born in Poland and raised in Warsaw. Her father was a doctor. After Germany invaded and they were living in occupation, her father was summoned to treat a high-ranking German officer inside the Warsaw Ghetto, where 500,000 Jews were barricaded in an area of only several city blocks. He was so appalled by the living conditions that he began smuggling food into the starving inhabitants. He was caught and he and his wife and children were loaded into railroad boxcars, along with the Jews from the Ghetto, and sent into the countryside.

When the train stopped and the people were herded out they were in a barbed wire prison. They were sent to get showered so they could begin to work. The doors to the shower chamber were closed, then the gas began to come out of the vents. When Yanina awoke she was lying among a pile of corpses, among them her family. Amazingly, she was still alive. A Jewish woman worker shook her to her feet and pressed her to work in one of the working gangs.

Yanina, age 16, when she was liberated from Dachau in 1945.

Yanina had survived her first day in Auschwitz. She was almost eleven. Several more times she would face death, and would be the only person in the group to survive. She had one scrap of a dream to cling onto to keep her alive, to one day be a ballet dancer in Paris.

It’s one of the most extraordinary stories I’d ever heard. When we returned to the station I told Millicent Ozdaglar, the special projects producer at KCRA, that I would write this story — and that it would be long. Every now and then you work on a story that fills you with so much passion that you don’t want to hand off to someone else to put together, but that you have to your own take on how you feel it should be done and have to see it through to the end. This was one of those stories.

Yanina as a Paris fashion model.

This story ran on KCRA’s once-a-month news magazine program Common Ground on Sunday evening, April 18, 2011.

Yanina has poured her life story out into a book, The Sugar Plum Nut, which you cannon put down.

Yanina as a happily married woman in in her new-found home in California in the 1960s.

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About The Author

Mike Carroll joined the digital revolution in 1999 with a Sony TRV900 camcorder and Final Cut Pro, when it was only Final Cut Pro and not version 2, 4 or a Suite.

15 Responses to Yanina Cywinska “The Sugar Plum Nut”

  1. Bill Mart says:

    Thanks for sharing this story…I live in Clayton Ca 94517…Next door to Concord. Yanina’s story is truly amazing.

  2. Mike says:

    Thanks for the note. How did you find the story? Thanks-MIKE CARROLL

  3. Joanna says:

    I know her. She an amazing and loving person! Her sense of humor after what happened to her and her life knowledge and wisdom is really impressive. Her will to live and be alive will never disappear!

  4. Mike says:

    Joanna–Thank you for the note. As you could tell by my write-up I was completely astounded by her story. One of the most amazing people I’ve ever met.

  5. Joanna says:

    Glad to hear! Actually,I just spoke with Yanina on the phone and she asked me to send to you a message re interview. To which email address I could write? Thank you in advance! Best regards, Joanna

  6. Johanna Rijken says:

    Thanks Mike for that beautiful piece on Yanina, I have read her book, never met her in person, but talked to her on the phone when I was in So.California visiting my kids. I bought her book for my daughter, I wish that it will be translated soon in Dutch, I have some dear Jewish friends that I’ll share this story with. My hope is that she will soon be a speaker at the Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam. Regards, Johanna.

  7. Heidi Smith says:

    Dear Mike,

    I was so glad when you went to interview Yanina. We’ve known each other for at least 40 years. She is an inspiration to all who hear her speak and the book she has written about her life before, during and after Auschwitz (Sugar Plum Nut – see Amazon.com:) shows how her incredible spirit has triumphed over unspeakable atrocities. It is absolutely amazing that she has emerged as a strong, wonderful human being with a marvelous sense of humor.

    Mike, I think you will agree that her story needs to be told to a wider audience, especially since every year there are fewer Holocaust survivors. Being almost 82 years old and on her own, she would greatly benefit from having a sponsor to promote her book. Any ideas?

    Heidi Smith

  8. Elle Lucas says:

    I’m so glad I was able to find her online and by reading her biography I’ve learned so much about her. I used to dance for her when she worked in the old Suisun city dance studio, which today is a salon. She was such a passionate and intelligent woman. She enlighted me, and showed me the true beauty an art of dancing. I began dancing for her at the age of 8 and I still carry on this gift today. Thank you maestra Cywinska and thank you Mike for conducting such a beautiful interview! (:

  9. adporter says:

    The video clip mentions Yanina still teaches dance. Does anyone know the name of the dance studio? Is she teaching in Concord? Thanks.

  10. Gataki says:

    wow, she is in eighteis. last time i saw her was about 17years ago.
    i was in CA , my daughter took ballet lesson from her.
    all her story was just weird.
    i have heard some of her storys from her closest friend.
    no one knows her another side. makes me laugh!

  11. Dear Mike,
    What an amazing story. And so powerfully told. The way you wove the Nutcracker into the piece, as well as the archival material…And the story. What suffering, what pain, and then for her to somehow go on to greatness they way she did…and to ultimately laugh at Hitler… I truly believe you honored that woman in a very beautiful way.
    Thank you for being there to tell this story.

  12. Marjorie Berra says:

    I started taking ballet for the first time in my life when I was 24 and by a wonderful stroke of good luck chose Yanina’s studio in San Francisco. She would share a little of her past to inspire us to move beyond our own self-made limitations. Forty years later I still am inspired by her strength and courage and often say to myself “If Yanina could survive the concentration camps, I can do this too”. Was so happy to see her again in this film clip — thank you to Yanina for all you taught and also to Mike for recognizing the great person she is.

  13. Bryanna Maty says:

    Hey Mike!
    I’m so glad that you posted this story, I’m in a journalism class and we’re sharing the most amazing stories we know…of course this story was at the top of my list. What a great experience meeting and talking to Yanina was.

  14. Bryanna Maty says:

    Hey Mike!
    I was looking for this story to share with my class and I’m so glad you posted it! We were all sharing the most amazing stories we knew…of course this one was at the top of my list. Meeting and talking to Yanina was eye-opening! 🙂 That interview was one I will never forget! I hope all is well!

  15. Kim Starble says:

    I was fortunate to meet Yanina in 1989 when I took our Swedish exchange student to her studio in Fairfield to dance in her class. As soon as I walked into the studio I was stricken by her dancing eyes and warmth. I told Yanina I had been a dancer for many years and that I missed it so much, and it was then I was blessed to be invited to become a student of hers. I came to tears immediately. My shoes came off and in my street clothes and berefooted, I did the Barre and floor routines with her students! I will always remember that day and I am proud to have danced in her production of The Nutcracker at Christmas time that year. Yanina, I will NEVER forget you. I think of you often. Thank you for having given me the gift of studying dance again. You are truly my most unforgettable teacher. God bless you!

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